Tour de France 2018: Stage 1: Cavendish and Sagan can surprise youngsters

Mark Cavendish of Dimension Data
Despite a disappointing season so far, Mark Cavendish will have had his eyes on being in form for this opening stage
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All eyes will be on the up-and-coming sprint stars on this seemingly straightforward opening stage, writes Jack Houghton, although it might be more complicated than some think, to the advantage of more experienced riders...

"Although seemingly straight and flat, there is a tight right-hander within the last mile, and the road kicks-up slightly towards the line. It's still a sprinters stage, but don't expect the out-and-out speedsters to have it easy..."

What's the stage like?

Facing the usual dilemma of whether to award the opening Yellow Jersey to a sprinter or time trialist, the route planners have opted for the former. The course has little to offer in terms of hills, although King of the Mountains points will be available on the paltry 30m of the Cote de Vix, 28km out from the finish of the 201km stage. It's fully expected, then, that it will come down to a bunch sprint, especially as the weather is forecast to be fine and still, meaning there is little chance of a cross wind on the 100km-long run down the Atlantic coast, which on other days could split the peloton into echelons.

There are potential complications, though. In a new initiative this year, organisers are offering bonus seconds in the Overall Classification for the first three riders over a second sprint-point, in Maillezais, 14km away from the finish. They say this is to keep Yellow Jersey hopefuls alert and racing in the opening week, which is dominated by flatter stages, but it's more likely so that they can be guaranteed a single leader after the team time trial of Stage 3, rather than seeing a whole team of riders atop the standings. Quite how these bonus seconds - which disappear from Stage 10 onwards - will be treated by the main players remains to be seen, but were some teams to be hell-bent on getting their rider into Yellow, it will be interesting how an injection of pace so close to the stage finish will affect the rhythm of the sprint trains. In-play punters need to be alert.

Also, although seemingly straight and flat, there is a tight right-hander within the last mile, and the road kicks-up slightly towards the line. It's still a sprinters stage, but don't expect the out-and-out speedsters to have it easy.

Who are the favourites?

With the lacklustre form of Kittel, Greipel, and Cavendish (previewed here) going into this Tour, Dylan Groenewegen ([3.55]) is topping most lists. The 25-year-old won on the Champs-Elysees in last year's Tour and has been picking-up sprints consistently in 2018. He is preferred to Fernando Gaviria ([4.20]), who is another rising sprint star, but who has had a string of second-placed finishes in recent weeks.

Who are the most likely outsiders?

Given the uncertainties of the stage, I'm not sure I'd want to be backing any rider at short odds, especially when they are as inexperienced as Groenewegen and Gaviria. Even assuming it does go the way of a sprinter, a valid case could be made for a dozen of them, so I'll be plumping for the juicier odds available on Mark Cavendish ([15.00]) and Peter Sagan ([11.50]).

Cavendish may have been out of form of late - he has only won two races since departing the 2016 Tour for the Olympics and seems to have spent more of 2018 crashing than riding - but it's worth remembering that there were doubts around his form going into 2016 as well, where he quickly established himself as the dominant sprinter. He knows how to get himself fit for a Tour de France. At the odds, a small bet on him doing something similar here is worthwhile.

Sagan is interesting, too. Although he usually plays the role of perennial placer on Tour stages like this one, the lack of form of his competitors suggests he may pick up a few more wins than normal - and the slight uphill finish will improve his chances.

What effect will the stage have on the overall markets?

Assuming he doesn't crash or get disqualified, Sagan's odds will shorten in the Points Competition, and we may get a small insight into which riders have designs on the polka-dot jersey. Otherwise, it will just be a day where the General Classification riders try to get through it unscathed.

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